Of all the lively and memorable audacities committed by Quentin Tarantino in Inglourious Basterds — the casting of Eli Roth, the splatter-happy director of the Hostel films (he looks like a strapping, beetle-browed Brooklyn Jewish prizefighter from 1947), as the bat-wielding “bear Jew” who likes to pulp the heads of Nazis; transforming Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the film’s smiling SS officer, into a nimbly joyful and light-fingered philosopher-detective who’s by far the most arresting character on-screen; or letting the bar scene twist and turn until it becomes a kind of luxurious and elongated suspense playlet, a little movie unto itself — certainly none of these provocations is more noteworthy than the outrageous, what-the-hell, history-as-war-game freedom with which QT rewrites the bloody ending of World War II.
Audacious, to be sure. But irresponsible? I was shocked when a friend of mine, an adventurous movie critic who has often loved Tarantino’s work, said that he was seriously offended by the movie’s big, explosive, death-in-a-Paris-movie-theater climax. He said that he thought Tarantino had stepped over a line of historical veracity, and that audiences, especially younger ones, might be led by Inglourious Basterds to embrace the idea that World War II was just another meaningless pulp fantasy. By now, I’ve heard this line of reasoning echoed in several other places; it could even be the core of a potential backlash. Yet the reason I was shocked is that even though I take history pretty seriously myself, it never even occurred to me to think of Inglourious Basterds as a “trashing” of history. In a strange way, the picture is far too outlandish for that. To me, the movie, and especially its ending, is defiantly a vision of war as a filmmaker’s lusciously subjective, almost childishly wish-fulfilling B-movie fever dream. The great, sick joke of the film’s grindhouse logic is that even though what it shows us didn’t happen, in a larger, almost abstract sense it did happen. (I mean, it’s not as if the Nazi high command, in the end, wasn’t destroyed.)
You could argue that a lot of Hollywood World War II films that we think of as more or less “responsible” have done a variation on the same thing, albeit a lot less…extremely. The Dirty Dozen, for instance, isn’t exactly a sober-minded PBS documentary; it’s a lurid piece of exploitation (which is exactly what Tarantino, and so many of us, love about it). And if you think back on all the World War II movies that were made in the period after World War II — like, say, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) or The Longest Day (1962) — the real, and insidious, illusion may be that they offer a “true” vision of what actually went on during the fighting of that war. I could name a hundred piously mature Hollywood war films, and even documentaries, that don’t get half as close to the deep-dish, loopy aristocratic inhumanity of Nazi-ism as Hans Landa’s opening monologue in Inglourious Basterds does.
Nevertheless, there’s no denying it: By the end of the movie, Quentin has made some serious stuff up. So what do you think of the historical liberties he takes? Does he have the right to create his own version of World War II? And if not, where do you draw the line?
More on Inglourious Basterds and Quentin Tarantino from EW: